Today the global health community recognizes the third annual World Pneumonia Day with the release of two new studies on pneumonia and events in more than 15 countries calling attention to the disease, which remains the world’s leading killer of young children. Yet despite renewed global attention and its dramatic toll, pneumonia remains one of the world’s least-understood conditions.
As we recommit ourselves to defeating this deadly disease on Nov. 12, let’s tackle a few of the leading myths head-on:
Pneumonia is really just a bad cold. In fact, it’s much worse. Pneumonia is an infection of your lungs that can require antibiotics or treatment in a hospital. A “common cold” usually lasts a few days or perhaps a week or two, and causes a runny nose, sore throat, sneezing and coughing. Pneumonia, on the other hand, kills more than 50,000 Americans and more than 1 million children worldwide each year.
The confusion exists because, at its start, pneumonia symptoms can be similar to those of a cold, including cough, fever and shortness of breath. Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities end. Left untreated, most colds will run their course as the body’s immune system naturally restores health. In contrast, ignoring early signs of bacterial pneumonia can be a death sentence.
The good news is that pneumonia is preventable and treatable with a host of proven interventions, including exclusively breastfeeding infants in their first six months of life, ensuring an environment free of indoor air pollution and promoting frequent handwashing (protection); immunizing against pneumonia’s leading causes (prevention); and ensuring access to medical care and antibiotics when cases do emerge (treatment). That’s why we need to ensure these interventions are available in developing countries, where 98 percent of pneumonia deaths occur.
Pneumonia only affects old people. Here in the United States, we tend to think of pneumonia as a disease that only affects elderly individuals, hospitalized adults or people with weakened immune systems. A closer look at the statistics about those who are actually at the highest risk for pneumonia may surprise you. Worldwide, pneumonia takes the lives of more young children than any other disease, and is responsible for up to 18 percent of the world’s annual child deaths.
Infants and young children with weakened or compromised immune systems are at particular risk, often because their natural defenses against infection are not yet fully developed or might have been stripped away by disease, chronic illness or lack of adequate nutrition.
In developing countries, these circumstances are further compounded for children who become sick with pneumonia and don’t have access to proper medical care. According to a study published last month in the International Journal of Epidemiology, simply by providing care and managing cases of pneumonia in sick children with antibiotics at the community level, pneumonia-related child deaths could be reduced by 70 percent. Community health workers can be trained to assess signs of pneumonia, determine appropriate treatment and advise parents, administer antibiotics and provide home care. They can also refer sick children to a health facility if complications arise. When children suffering from pneumonia are treated promptly and effectively with antibiotics, their chances of survival increase significantly.
However, in wealthy countries like ours where health care is accessible, childhood nutrition standards are high and vaccines are in routine use, childhood deaths from pneumonia are extremely low. That being said, adults of all ages here in the United States and elsewhere can increase their protection against pneumonia by getting their influenza vaccines. Adults over age 65 and those with one or more risk conditions should get the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine, which is covered under Medicare Part B.
Dr. Orin Levine